Friday, July 15, 2011

The Lost Sea

My mom called a few days ago and invited us to join her on a trip to The Lost Sea. The last time I'd been there, Kathryn and I happened across it on the way back from a trip to New York, I think in 1996. I didn't think it would be much different, but it was cool the first time, and the kids would surely like it, so we were totally on board.

Today we rolled up to Sweetwater to check it out.


The timing worked out such that it was lunchtime when we arrived, but Sweetwater turned out to be almost devoid of restaurants. The historic town square offered only sandwich shops. There was an Italian place but we'd eaten pizza last night. We were seconds away from resorting to Subway when we ran back across a Barbecue joint that we'd passed on the way in. It was excellent.

Lunch accomplished, we proceeded on to our actual objective: The Lost Sea.

 The Lost Sea

The Lost Sea is an underground lake in a cavern near Sweetwater. The lake itself is cool, but so are the caves. As underground tourist destinations in the south east go, I'm not aware of one that's bigger or more interesting.

Tours started every 20 minutes. The waiting room was this long, yellow tube that led from the gift shop down into the cavern.


Why yellow? Apparently it's the easiest on your eyes when you finally emerge from the darkness at the end of the tour.

Our tour started with the most beautiful formation in the entire cave, though my photo doesn't do it justice.

 Cave Bacon

I don't think our tour guide told us the name, or if she did, I forgot. The draperies hanging down from the ceiling are translucent and often referred to as cave bacon. With the light shining from behind, it was obvious why. They looked like bacon.

There were also these weird things hanging from the ceiling: Anthodites.


They're really rare. Only 7 caves in the world have them. They grow like 1 cm per 1000 years. As interesting as they were, they were small, and with the rest of the formations in there, I'd have overlooked them entirely on my own.

During the civil war, people "mined" saltpeter by collecting bat guano in these big contraptions, adding water and letting it strain out.

 Guano Strainer

The bats are long gone though. Our tour guide said she's only seen two in years.

The cave has been used for a few hundred years. The Cherokee held secret meetings there. It was mined for saltpeter. There was a bar down there once. Food had been stockpiled during the cuban missile crisis. They found the remains of a saber tooth tiger down there too. I can't remember what else.

Some users left their mark.


Moon's Milk grows along the ceiling in various places.

 Moon's Milk

It's apparently a bacteria that people would put on their wounds to promote healing. It eats dead flesh voraciously, but cannot eat living flesh and out-competes germs which can eat both before they get a chance to take hold.

Oh yeah, moonshiners also used the cave. There's a replica of an old still down there.

 Moonshine Still

At some point we were in a room that had once been filled with a swirling whirlpool. In there, they turned off the lights and it was darker than you can imagine. "Total darkness." If you're left in total darkness for 2 weeks, your retinas will die. Sophie didn't like total darkness at all. I think she felt like if she let go of me, she'd never find me again.

Eventually we got to the Lost Sea itself, but it was too dark to get any decent photos. Legend has it that an 11 year old kid named Ben Sands discovered the lake while running around in the cave but nobody believed him, basically because nobody believes kids and who's ever heard of an underground lake anyway? About 60 years later, another explorer had heard the stories, re-discovered the lake and then went and found Ben Sands, then in his 70's, to make sure he got the credit he deserved.

No kidding, there's a lake down there. Basically there's just a big chamber that's filled most of the way up with water. Groundwater trickles down through cracks in the mountain, falls from the roof through Crystal Falls, which I also couldn't get a decent photo of, runs over some cool-looking pools, goes back into the ground, and fills the chamber. When it rains, the water level can rise super high, so they keep it pumped out and use the water for toilets and other stuff like that.

To tour the lake, we packed into this long boat with a trolling motor and spun a few laps. There were lights set up all along the perimeter and the water glowed an eerie blue. They keep the lake stocked with trout and they were everywhere. They'd originally put them in to see if they could find their way out, which they couldn't, so apparently there is no way out, or at least none discernible by fish.

There is another, much larger chamber below the lake, also filled with water, but no one has successfully explored it yet. The one diver that went down there caused a minor cave-in with his bubbles and nobody's been back since.

We fed the fish. People kept putting their fingers in and getting bitten.

That was about it, we walked up and out.

The kids were good. It was my kids and their cousins, minus the two year old. They acted about like any of the adults on the tour. They didn't go running all over the place, they seemed genuinely interested and asked a couple of good questions. Nice job kids.

There's apparently a "wild tour" you can take where you go crawling around in some narrow passages and spend the night. Sophie wanted no part of it but Isabel was interested. Maybe one day we'll do that together.

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